I’ve heard the phrase, “Marriage is just a piece of paper”, uttered by my peers more times than I care to count. And still, every year like clockwork, my timeline floods full of brides and beaus, relationship goals and bae reveals, as the annual wedding seasons screech to a stop. Despite our overall reluctance and casual dismissal of the idea of marriage all together, we cannot get enough of weddings themselves. We want the picture perfect proposal, complete with semi-candid photographs and cheerful innocent bystanders. We want the elaborate bridesmaid invitations, choreographed bachelor/bachelorette dance challenges, and blog-worthy bridal party entrances. Many of us have been dreaming of the day of our wedding since we were still young, planning to the most minuet detail. Too bad few of us are that excited about what happens after.
It’s almost as if we’ve completely disassociated the two — weddings and marriage, that is — with friends speaking of marriage and weddings like the two don’t go hand in hand. Already having a gown and color scheme in mind, but not the slightest clue how to choose a guy worthy of seeing either one. It was after hearing an acquaintance casually comment about her future husband only needing to show up to the ceremony for the photo ops that I slowly began to accept that we may have had some unhealthy views of matrimony altogether. We most certainly wanted to get married, we just didn’t want to be anyone’s spouse.
I almost can’t blame us for our aversion to spousal-hood. By all accounts, weddings are one hell of a time; marriage, on the other hand, just looks like hell. There’s an overall expectation that wedding ceremonies are filled with celebration, joy and togetherness, while marriage has taken on more of a Forest Gump reputation, with neither party quite sure what they’re going to get. Generally speaking, men have come to expect a loss of freedom from marriage, while women have come to expect a loss of everything else. Neither is too far off in their thinking.
It’s well documented that women have very little to gain from marriage; men, on the other hand, have little to lose except for their extended adolescence. Still, the idea of eternity in a society that changes by the second has made most hesitant to jump the broom. And while marriage has become an unnecessary evil, weddings themselves have become the star of the show, with some women going as far as to marry themselves just for the sake of having a fanciful celebration centered solely around them.
With every conversation about our matrimony mistrust turning into tales of philandering grandpas and eerily devoted grandmas, it’s hard to argue any points in marriage’s defense. Granted, not everyone’s grandparents were a carbon copy of the Cosby’s, but it would be intellectually immature of me to argue that the gross majority of Black marriages in the 1950’s and 1960’s were riddled with infidelity, side children and pseudo-polygamy, especially when we have no proof of that. During a time when 72% of all Black men and 81% of Black women had been married, we were bound to see some unhappy unions, but there is no actual data supporting the notion that all of our grandmothers were miserable doormats and our grandfathers were vintage versions of T.I. Sure, it helps to dismiss our dismissal of the dated practice, but it does very little to deal with the bigger issue at hand, which is that most of us have never seen marriage done right.
Think back to your childhood. Who taught you about weddings? The elaborate wedding cakes, ice fountains, delicately hand-sewn wedding gowns — where were you first introduced to these and similar images? If I had to guess, I’d say television, am I right? The concept of the billowy bride gliding towards her groom, accompanied by her dedicated father, surrounded by smiling friends and family is one firmly planted in our minds by the Western media machine.
Weddings aren’t just business, they’re big business. With more than 2.5 million weddings in the U.S. alone every single year, the American wedding industry weighs in at a whopping $72 billion, and that number grows exponentially when accounting for other billion dollar bridal industries around the world. Is it any wonder that businesses, small and large alike, are in support of the mass produced narrative that has all of us planning weddings without anyone to wed?
If you’re not sold on the idea that the promotion of weddings but not marriages is intentional marketing, think back long and hard to your childhood again. Who taught you about marriage? How many times were you offered adult advice on boundaries or intimacy? When did you first learn the difference between talking at your spouse and communicating with them? Who coached you on the importance of compromise? Fidelity? Empathy? Who teaches us how to be spouses the way they teach us what a veil symbolizes, or why an engagement ring is your most prized piece of jewelry? I almost don’t blame us for not knowing how to be husbands and wives because those lessons went untaught. The question then becomes if we don’t know how to do the job, why do we keep applying?
Unfortunately, we can’t get the wedding without the spouse so we hesitantly oblige, but in the back of our minds, we know we’ve got other options. The most enticing of them being divorce, and with a divorce rate just south of 50%, it’s safe to say we like our options. It’s typically when you bring up society’s affinity for quick fixes that people begin to chronicle all of the challenges that couples who do honor the forever in their vows face. Sure, some of the women in our lineages endured rocky relationships with men who provided financially but contributed not much else, but we could still learn a great deal from that generation.
Mainly, that marriage isn’t for the faint of heart. And that marriage isn’t intended to subject lovers to lifelong suffering. There’s a reason that “for better or worse” is written into wedding vows, because it would be naive to think that lifelong partnerships are devoid of either or. The deeper dilemma is that we have wedding expectations for marriage. We want everything to go as scripted, we want the music queued up and the lighting just right, we want daily lives that look like wedding still shots, we couldn’t be more unrealistic if we tried.
We look at older couples who’ve been together for decades and crave their seemingly unruffled wisdom, but we fail to acknowledge all the sacrifice and dedication it took to get them there. We are a generation that celebrates the ride-or-die girlfriend and the side chick who knows her place, plays her position (I’m still trying to figure out how that works), then we wonder why weddings seem to be the only part of matrimony that we get right. What else are we prepared for?
Marriage is more than just a piece of paper. Anyone who believes that likely knows very little about marriage. Healthy marriage strengthens communities, builds wealth, and benefits children in more ways than sociologists can measure. When marriage is approached from the standpoint of what can I contribute as opposed to what can I keep, it takes on a level of selflessness that few get to experience. No, marriage hasn’t always been used to demonstrate the effectiveness of a loving partnership, but we don’t have to throw out the concept altogether all because it’s been modeled incorrectly.
We are intelligent enough to redefine marriage as we best see fit, and with our collective best interests in mind. We are not victims of circumstance if we dive head first into elaborate wedding ceremonies for marriages we have no strategies to maintain. We don’t stop trying to impress our employers after we’ve been hired or start to slack shortly after landing a big promotion. In the same fashion, we shouldn’t stop working to be supportive, sincere, well-intentioned partners after we make it down the aisle. It’s true, we may not be lovebirds like our grandparents or have the stamina and patience of our parents, but what’s stopping us from being better than them both?